According to UN data, more than 40% of invertebrate pollinators, particularly bees and butterflies, are threatened with extinction. Scientists in Finland can help combat this situation through the world's first vaccine to protect bees and prevent the collapse of the population of these insects, which could cause a global food crisis.
Bees contribute in effect to the pollination of 90% of the world's major crops. But in recent years these precious insects have been decimated by the "colony collapse syndrome," a mysterious evil. It is accused of causing mites, pesticides, viruses or mushrooms, and even a mixture of several of these factors.
Its dizzying decline could, according to scientists, lead to an increase in food prices and a risk of difficulties.
The vaccine, the product of a team at the University of Helsinki, provides the bees with the necessary resistance to fight serious microbial diseases, which are potentially deadly to pollinator communities.
"If we can save even a small part of the bees with this invention, I think we would do our good deed, save the world a little" said Dalial Freitak, a researcher who runs the project.
"It would be a huge increase of 2 to 3% of the bee population" told AFP.
It was previously believed that it was impossible to vaccinate insects, since they do not have antibodies, one of the main mechanisms that humans and other animals use to fight diseases.
But in 2014, Freitak, a specialist in insects and immunology, realized that butterflies fed certain bacteria transmitted their immunity to offspring.
Freitak and Heli Salmela, who worked with bees and proteins, created a vaccine against American foulbrood, the most widespread and destructive of bee bacterial diseases.
How do you "vaccinate" the bees?
The treatment is administered to the bees' queen through sugar in the same way that the children receive the polio vaccine.
The queen then transmits her immunity to her descendants.
The team tries to make the vaccine available in the market, but "there are a lot of regulatory hurdles," so waiting for "four to five years to hit the market is an optimistic estimate," according to Freitak.
Scientists believe that diseases are just one of the many causes of pollinator loss. So does intensive farming, which reduces the diversity of insects and pesticides.
But the Freitak team believes that protecting populations of bees against disease will make them stronger and therefore better equipped to withstand other threats.
The European Union and Canada voted in favor of banning neonicotinoids, which are considered to be very damaging to bee breeding.
According to a UN study published in 2016, the equivalent of 507 billion euros of food grown each year depends directly on pollinators. The volume of food produced that depends on pollinators has increased by 300% in the last 50 years.
With the decline of pollinators, some farmers have turned to beekeeping or manual pollination, as in the case of fruit trees in some regions of China.
In Helsinki, the project is supported by external funding, but the team intends to continue its research at the University of Graz, Austria, by the famous zoologist Karl von Frisch. His findings on bees' dance as a method of communication and their application to human language earned him the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1973.